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So what’s the deal with absinthe, anyways? Am I gonna trip my balls off or what?  Am I gonna find myself chasing dragons and horned demons through the nether world?  Well, absinthe (and its supposed hallucinogenic qualities) is thick with folklore and now certainly back on the world stage in a flourish and this after a long respite…almost a century’s worth.  But let’s start at the beginning.  Just what is absinthe and how did it get this infamous reputation?

Absinthe is a high-alcohol, anise-flavored spirit made from herbs, flowers and leaves of a medicinal plant known as wormwood.  It can often sport an alcohol level of 70%…that’s 140 proof!  Often times it has a natural green color but can also be clear.

wormwood

It was the bell of the ball in Paris during the 1800′s, and was a favorite among artists and high-class ladies of the night.  Images of the troubled 18th century artist in some slummy Parisian apartment come to mind, riding some hallucinogenic wave of insanity. It was shunned by many as risky and unrefined, but the likes of Oscar Wilde and Vincent Van Gogh were huge fans.

It all came to a head in the early 1900′s, and was banned in America in 1915 because it contained the chemical, thujone.  Absinthe was thought of as a hallucigenic, and thujone was thought to be the culprit. But how did we end up this association with the drink as a rocket shot to the moon?  Well, that’s the rub.  Absinthe use was misunderstood and due to a rather gruesome murder that I’d rather not go into involving a man who drank two glasses of absinthe (followed by an exorbitant amount of liquor and beer), a powerful campaign was set up to ban it and it quickly became a scapegoat for all sorts of evils (which mostly turned out to be the ravages of alcoholism).

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It was painted as being a psychoactive drug.  I mean, have you seen Johnny Depp in ‘From Hell’?  He sips the stuff like a heroin addict and then disappears into gruesome vision quests in pursuit of Jack the Ripper.  But modern day science shows that thujone appears in drastically less proportions than originally predicted, and therefore is not capable of inducing any sort of a hallucinogenic reaction.  But have we focused on the wrong chemical?  Some aren’t so sure, and the mask of uncertainty remains…

On a geeky level, the whole drinking of the stuff is a detailed ritual.  A series of intricate steps expand the experience by employing a sugar cube, a slotted spoon, and a bit of spring water poured from an ornate tap.  The slotted spoon is rested over the top of the glass with the sugar cube at the ready, and then slowly drizzled with water till dissolved.  This is said to release the “green fairy” hiding in the liquor, which turns the liquid cloudy and releases a blast of herbal aromas.  The whole thing is very elaborate, and has recently been decriminalized.  Today’s newly-liberated-from-the-law brands are playing on the mystique of absinthe and its reputation as an elixir that takes you to wonderland.  Who knows…maybe one day you’ll have your own green fairy visit you…

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4 Responses to “Absinthe: the Green Fairy”

  1. DuneGuy says:

    “But modern day science shows that thujone appears in drastically less proportions than originally predicted”

    Modern day “science” produced by whom? Answer: the modern day absinthe industry.

    Here are some alternative points of view:

    **”It will be like drinking decaffeinated coffee,” says Pierre-André Delachaux, a history professor. “I will keep on drinking illegal absinthe until the supply dries up, then I’ll switch to whisky.”

    “But the biggest controversy surrounding the liquor–once dubbed “one of the worst enemies of man”–is about not its resurgence but rather its authenticity. Enthusiasts claim the thujone-free brands, which contain less than 10 parts per million (p.p.m.) of the chemical, are made with the same relatively small amounts of thujone as the old brews. But scientists wrote in the British Medical Journal that absinthe bottled before 1900 packed up to 260 p.p.m. of thujone–which may not sound like much, but consider that only 15 parts per billion of lead in drinking water is enough to scare regulators. “They are playing pretend,” study co-author Wilfred Arnold says of the liquor’s new cheerleaders. “It is nothing like the old stuff.” Time Magazine

    Boston Herald:

    The manufacturers of “new absinthe” claim that they are in compliance with the European Commission ruling that no foodstuff should contain more than 9 ppm thujone. Perhaps to raise the titillation for the current product, and to increase sales, they now claim that the “old absinthe” also had very little thujone in it! Supposedly the current drink has very little of several other terpenoids that were part of “old absinthe” because the current producers have missed the importance of (or intentionally avoided) “steam distillation” which was key to the manufacture of “old absinthe.” Steam distillation greatly affects the composition of the batchwise distillate. Any analogy to fractional distillation (as in whisky) is totally inappropriate with regard to 19th century absinthe manufacture. The toxicity of thujone, or any other toxic compound, depends upon both the amount and the time. How much and how long. There is ample evidence to indicate that high doses of thujone, camphor, fenchone (and related compounds) over a short time evoke convulsions and hallucinations in experimental animals. To the best of my knowledge there are no published studies on the long-term effect of 9 ppm thujone. It has been shown that thujone, pinene, and camphor, as well as alcohol itself, are all porphyrogenic. An individual such as Vincent van Gogh with the underlying disease of acute intermittent porphyria would be more sensitive than the general population to these terpenoids, and to drinking all alcoholic beverages, but especially absinthe. Dr. Wilf. Arnold Westwood Hills Kansas

    “… However, in a 2000 study by UC Berkeley researchers Karin Hold, Nilantha Sirisoma, Tomoko Ikeda, Toshio Narahashi and John Casida, it was discovered that alpha-thujone affects a brain receptor that regulates excitation, re-opening the idea that absinthe has calculable effects on the brain”

    “It depends strictly on the concentration of active ingredients,” said Casida in a phone interview.

  2. Jüri says:

    If I drink it, did i see a green little mans?

  3. I agree that they have reduced the ingredients, I have yet to hallucinate. Now if someone over there would wake up and realize that absinthe is now allowed back in Canada, and, I might add, allowing three times the Thujone level which is allowed in the European community, I would love to see that.

  4. mcmeador says:

    “From Hell” more so depicted opium as the instigator of his visions (he was shown dripping laudanum onto his sugar cube before adding it to the absinthe in one scene).

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